Tag Archives: Paul Valery

Marginalia, no.334

I love what astonishes me and only retain that which would excite but forgetfulness in the mind of a wise man.

~ Paul Valery, The Dialogue of the Tree

If wisdom is retaining only ideas that are somehow useful or relevant, then I must content myself with foolishness. But I don’t really believe in wise men, only in differing capacities for astonishment. We see it in our children and it’s the same for adults. You may commit briefly to memory a whole encyclopedia of facts – two days later you will only retain those things that surprised you.

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Marginalia, no.55

A civilization has the same fragility as a life.

~ Paul Valéry, Crisis of the Mind

Valéry was looking over the wreckage of the First World War.  Today’s announcers of doom are still heralding the immanent end of western civilization.  I’ve heard my own voice in the choir.  Maybe it’s the sunshine playing tricks on me, but these days I find myself less impressed by life’s fragility than by its stubborn persistence.  It may not chart an upward progress, but if the history of western civilization demonstrates anything it’s the ability to hold through the storm like a barnacle to the rock, or to sleep like a seed in Egyptian honey and shoot forth again in fresh soil.  We’ve seen worse storms, I think, and deeper mountains of sand… Or maybe it’s just the sun.

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Infernal Summer

Everyone loves a fire, at least for a while.  Writing about the war years in Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge says we all harbor a secret desire to see civilization crumble around us, to witness the Great Downfall, to watch the world go up in flames before our eyes.

During a heat-wave this past weekend a clutch of electrical storms pushed through the state, which is rather unusual and frankly unwelcome in a drought year.  The lightning that scattered through the tinderbox canyons and Sierra sparked over eight hundred separate wildfires in a single day. 

The northern half of the state is lit up like a birthday cake, and it’s only the beginning of the season.  Few of us are in any immediate danger since the fires are mostly confined to wilderness areas.  But the smoke smothers and deadens everything.  The horizon disappears in an unwholesome twilight.  The mountains look like belching volcanoes.  There’s a fine ash on the morning streets.

When you finally do see the world burn up before your eyes any appeal the idea might have had quickly evaporates.  The campfire odor sheds all sentimental associations when it persists for days and weeks.  You grow sick over lost landscapes: redwoods and chaparral, oak-lined riverbanks, coastal ridges, alpine meadows – the grandeur passing daily into flame.  You’re left to scratch, as best you can, some stoic comfort from the melancholy truth so nicely captured in Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos or The Architect:

What is most beautiful finds no place in the eternal… Nothing beautiful is separable from life, and life is that which dies. 

Or “burns,” as the case may be.

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Dubious Cartography

As a kid, I spent an unhealthy number of hours in the company of the National Geographic World Atlas. And when maps of the real world, for whatever reason, failed to inspire, I charted out imaginary worlds in pencil on sheet after sheet of paper, taping them together like tiles in a mosaic that often grew to cover my entire bedroom floor. Each of my dreamed-up worlds came with a private narrative. Sometimes these found their way into written form. More often I was satisfied with the story as I’d drawn it.

A map is an abstract model of the world, a representation of reality. Even the most precise and appealing map is therefore essentially false: it can never actually be what it represents. At most it achieves an approximate truth, inasmuch as it accurately describes the relationships it depicts according to its own particular rules. But every map, regardless of accuracy, is an attempt to say something about reality; which is another way of saying that every map is a story – told in a particular way.

We might just as well say that every story is a map – drawn, if you will, in a particular way. Stories -like maps- are concerned with real objects (physical or intellectual), their characteristics, behaviors, the distances or obstacles that separate them from other objects, and what happens when two or more of these objects collide. The stories we tell, to ourselves and others, and whether couched in terms of personal experience, philosophy or tradition, are all maps of one sort or another, all designed to say something about reality, to render it intelligible through abstraction.

The need for maps is sometimes felt as a weakness.  If it’s true that only hesitant, uncertain creatures need maps, then human beings are a sorry bunch. Unable to feel quite well until we have the What, Whence and Wherefore of All Things, we are in agonies to learn how X results in Y; why four and four is never nine; why love should be so difficult, why happiness so rare; what it is, or Who, that holds all things in being – and what it is, and why, to die. So, we draw our maps and tell our stories until we feel better. We flatten life into abstraction in order to resolve its three-dimensional complications.

But though we are practiced cartographers, we’re purblind. Habit is no substitute for skill, and the fact is that our maps are not often very good. They tend to be sloppy, inaccurate, in constant need of revision. Which, frankly, is precisely why we took up the trade in the first place: we make maps because we don’t see things well, but want to see them better. We tend to forget this. We forget our dim-sightedness and flatter ourselves with the notion that, despite the flaws apparent in others’ maps, ours make for perfectly reliable descriptions of the world. When someone else’s map differs from our own, we take it as an opportunity for judgment. We’re so used to the cataracts that obscure our own field of vision, we imagine they’re simply part of the landscape.

On the other hand, accuracy in maps is overrated. Perfect fidelity imposes its own problems.  Even the most perceptive and skilled cartographer will run up against that variation of Bonini’s Paradox according to which the more perfectly a map represents the complex systems it is intended to explain, the less intelligible it becomes. (Paul Valery had the same basic idea when he wrote that “Everything simple is false. Everything complex is unusable.”) Absolute accuracy in a map is undesirable; or, if desired, its achievement would be self-defeating. To borrow an image from Borges, one could paper over the entire world in a 1/1-scale atlas, but what would be the point? It’s the same whether we’re talking about maps in terms of visual charts or in terms of stories: If we saw well enough to make truly accurate, truly representative maps of reality, we wouldn’t need maps in the first place.

But we do need maps, sometimes desperately. And we are going to keep making them, consciously or unconsciously. The difficulty is finding courage enough to admit when our maps fail. Only the most intrepid cartographer sets aside the parchment and abandons himself to terra incognita; only the most diligent finds solace in the idea that disillusionment is no mortal danger but merely a difficult sort of grace.

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